The Iranian regime finds itself in a very difficult situation currently, facing an unanticipated challenge in the form of the Coronavirus, something which has the potential to change everything in Iran. According to official sources, the first declared virus case was in Qom on 18 February and as of the morning of 28 March there had been 35,408 cases in Iran: the official death toll was 2,517.
On the other hand, according to the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), an anti-regime group which was the first to publicly reveal Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, the Coronavirus situation in Iran is much, much worse than the regime will admit. The NCRI states that, as of the afternoon of 28 March, the total number of virus deaths was in fact 13,000 and Iran’s medical system is increasingly unable to cope. It further claim that the first virus cases were noted at the end of January, almost three weeks earlier than the official figures, with cases declared in both Qom and Tehran.
The regime is using the Coronavirus epidemic to claim that US sanctions are denying it access to medical equipment and that sanctions should be lifted to allow Iran to import vitally needed equipment and supplies. Yet on 23 March they expelled a Médecins Sans Frontières medical team with a fully-equipped and -staffed 48-bed field hospital. In fact, both the UN and the EU have been supplying medical and financial assistance to Iran. The real point, though, is that medical equipment and related supplies are excluded from the sanctions imposed on Iran. Furthermore, the US State Department has alleged that €1 billion of European funding intended for medical supplies has been lost to Iranian corruption. Prior to that, in late 2019, international funding intended for ‘humanitarian purposes’ was used to buy tobacco instead.
Coronavirus is a direct challenge to the Iranian regime: they are attempting to blame the virus on the Americans, amongst others, but the fact of the matter is that this crisis has exposed the government’s inefficiency dishonesty and corruption. It is clear how the Coronavirus came to Iran: it came directly from China, a major trading partner to Iran, purchasing Iranian oil and supplying Iran with a wide variety of goods and services that includes defence and nuclear technologies. Which is why the epicentres for Coronavirus were Qom – the leadership centre for the theocracy that is Iran – and Tehran, the economic centre and the national capital.
What is significant is how many senior officials have been infected, including high-level advisors to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other senior regime figures (many of whom have died), government ministers, parliamentarians and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leadership (six senior IRGC personnel are reported to have died). On top of that, IRGC operatives who visited their clients in Lebanon have spread the virus to the leadership of Hezbollah, many of whom subsequently went into quarantine. There are also reports of armed groups in Iraq – Iranian clients – experiencing virus outbreaks after visits from their IRGC liaisons.
The need for some positive PR and the reinforcement of Iran’s standing with the Shiite militias, reportedly saw a senior Iranian representative travel to Iraq to present its militia clients with two million face masks as a virus prevention measure. This gives an indication of the priorities of the Iranian leadership, as Iran’s own hospitals are desperate for supplies.
The virus is stretching the abilities of the Iranian regime to cope. On top of that, the economy is a shambles, with matters not helped by the decline in the oil price. All three Iranian oil types, Iran Light, Iran Heavy and Forozan Blend, are currently trading at less than $25/barrel, a reduction of more than 50% compared to earlier this year. Iran now faces a situation in which there is an oil glut and the price is low. It was making $500 million a month from oil sales last year: it cannot achieve that now. Iran was also estimated to have $100 billion in reserves in hand last September, enough to last them two years under normal conditions. Conditions today, however, are not normal, hence the desperation to get sanctions lifted.
What comes next depends on how long the virus lasts, how many more it kills in Iran, when the global economy gets moving and when the oil price picks up. Fundamentally, regime survival continues to depend on the will of the Basij militia and other elements of the IRGC to brutally suppress anti-government protests.
David Saw in Paris for MON